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Crime & Courts

New law protects campground owners from frivolous lawsuits

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Both chambers of the South Dakota Legislature have approved a bill creating immunity for campground owners whose guests encounter the inherent risks of camping, such as bugs and birds and tree stumps. The owners say the pandemic and the state’s open invitation to out-of-staters has resulted in an influx of novice campers who don’t understand the unpredictability of nature.

Mary Arlington is executive director of the South Dakota Campground Owners Association, as well as a former campground owner. She testified before both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees in favor of the bill that cuts the risk of lawsuits for campsite owners.

Arlington said the bill doesn’t address gross negligence. It’s all about the variability and unpredictability of woods and meadows that has led to endless lawsuits over conditions outside the campground’s control.

“We visited with industry insurance carriers, and they confirmed they’ve seen lawsuits on such natural situations as bee stings and mosquito bites,” she said.

Arlington said many campers are native South Dakotans, but there has been a recent flood of out-of-staters.

“Given the pandemic’s call to the outdoors for social time and vacations, these inexperienced campers have come out like crazy.”

Arlington said these campers have expectations of comfort that the realities of nature just can’t provide.

She told the Senate Judiciary about an event that occurred when she owned a campground.  “I remember clearly this day, which just baffled me. A guest was outraged because a songbird in the tree woke her on the only morning she was allowed to sleep in. She actually demanded her campsite refund or she would, quote, sue me.”

House Bill 1176 lays out a long list of inherent risks, including trees and tree stumps, uneven terrain, weather, wild animals, roots, rocks, mud, sand, and the absence of street lights.

The bill requires campground owners to post notice of specific known hazards, as well as a notice of immunity from liability for injury or death resulting from the inherent risks of camping.

The bill now heads to the governor’s desk for a signature.